STEVENS POINT, Wis. – Students at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point have been working overtime to allow American Indians to smudge within their residence halls and on campus.
Graduate student Rory Griffin, Menominee, has led the charge as a result of misunderstandings he and other Native students have faced when practicing aspects of their religions.
During his undergraduate years at Rocky Mountain College in 2004, he faced an incident involving city police after a campus residence hall official mistakenly thought he was smoking marijuana in the courtyard.
What Griffin was actually doing was smudging with sage from his abalone seashell after getting an urgent call from his mother to pray for his grandmother, who was caught in a hurricane.
The police soon realized the situation was a mistake, and Griffin ultimately chose not to take punitive action against the school, despite receiving advice from some confidants to file a lawsuit. Instead, he decided to soldier on – but he soon found that the incident had damaged his reputation.
“My peers were making things uncomfortable for me and it started trickling into the classroom, where I felt professors were treating me differently because of the incident,” he recalls.
As a result, Griffin ended up leaving Rocky Mountain to finish his undergraduate education at Montana State University. After graduating, he enrolled at UWSP to study for a graduate degree in natural resource management.
All was going well until this semester, when he heard about a freshman Native student at his current school, Sandra Gokee, being made to feel uncomfortable about smudging on campus. Immediately, all the bad memories of the Rocky Mountain incident came flooding back.
Griffin soon spoke to administrators, who said similar incidents have occurred over the years but no real policy changes had been put in place to help Native students feel comfortable about practicing their religions.
Ultimately, Griffin reached out to Native students and others to forge a coalition focused on creating a policy that would permit smudging in dorm rooms. The group also wanted to establish a safe zone on campus for Native students who don’t live in dorms to gather and perform their religious ceremonies.
To that end, Griffin and his peers worked many long hours to get what’s called the Native American Religious Act Statute passed by the institution’s student government in October.
The statute makes clear that the federal government protects indigenous culture, customs and religious practices as outlined in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. It also notes that some Native students smudge as a part of their religious practices, and calls on the university to uphold federal law by supporting safe spaces for all students.
On the administrative side, Griffin and others are now working with top school officials to establish guidelines to create a safe zone and to mandate the Residence Hall Association to allow smudging.
Some administrators are concerned about the risk of fire hazard, but Griffin is confident that a suitable policy addressing that concern can be developed, especially considering the relatively small amount of smoke released through smudging.
Ron Strege, director of multicultural affairs at the institution, noted that issues surrounding smudging have come up on campus before, but said no substantial administrative action has been taken. This time around, however, he thinks things will be different, especially since a broad coalition of students now supports the smudging agenda.
“It’s part of our Native students’ religions; it’s part of their culture; and for a lot of students, it’s a part of who they are. To deny that part of them is not what we’re trying to do here at Stevens Point.”
He said he’s talked to residence hall administrators and others who support a policy change. He feels it’s just a matter of time before guidelines will be put in place that will be supportive of smudging on campus.
“Like everything in a bureaucracy, it’s moving slowly, But it’s an inevitable thing—it’s going to happen.”
If Griffin is successful in getting a change to the residence hall code, his efforts will not stop with his own campus. He’s already approached the United Council, a statewide student advocacy organization, about bringing the issue before the Wisconsin
The ultimate goal would be to have language written into the state constitution that would allow smudging in dorms at all University of Wisconsin-affiliated institutions. Another possibility would be to have the regents of the University of Wisconsin system codify the policy across its many campuses.
As to why he’s keeping up the battle, Griffin said he’s doing it for his people.
“I finally realized that this journey is no longer about me. It’s about the people back home on the reservation. And the way that the Creator has guided me to this point in my life, I’m very fortunate to be able to do this for my people.”